I do like watching interviews with scientists. As a journalist and someone who has worked in media training for over 20 years, I’m something of a media interview nerd.
What do scientists do right during media interviews? We’ve talked about this before in a blog about Professor Sarah Gilbert Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford. The simple truth is that they’re concise and factual. They don’t try and add spin or introduce corporate cliches. If they don’t know the answer to a question or they don’t think that it’s relevant they simply say so. Similarly, if a journalist tries to push them into speculation or commenting on something outside their remit they’re usually clear that they’re not going to discuss it.
The Andrew Marr show yesterday provided another very good example of a scientist doing a great TV interview. Professor Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech, talked about the experience that he and his wife had had in creating what looks to be the world’s best bet at the moment for a coronavirus vaccine.
I was particularly interested in a question that Andrew Marr put to Professor Sahin about halfway through the interview. It’s a classic journalist’s question but it throws many interviewees. In our media training courses we recommend that people prepare for this question – and even get ready to introduce it proactively.
“Now a week ago today you were sitting there waiting for the phone call to tell you whether this vaccine worked and if so how effectively,” says Andrew Marr to Professor Sahin. “Just tell us a little bit about the moment when the phone call rang.”
Yes, it’s that classic
“how did it feel?”
question. The hitherto, understandably very serious scientist smiles broadly.
“We knew that we would get a call at eight providing us with the answer,” he explains. “And I got a call from Albert Bourla who is CEO of Pfizer and a good friend. He called me and asked me if I would like to know if the result of the trial was positive. I said ‘Hmm, no.’ Then I said ‘Of course’. And he said, ‘Sit down,’ and he provided the information that the trial had been positive which was extremely relieving.”
I love the understatement, here by the way. Generally, this is a great example of how this
“how did it feel?”
question works so well. Even with a serious interview programme such as the Andrew Marr Show talking about a serious issue such as the coronavirus vaccine journalists are always looking for a human element, something with a bit of emotion. We do this because people relate to human stories and experiences. These little human anecdotes add warmth to a report or interview and help to engage audiences.
Here Andrew Marr then asks:
“How did you celebrate?”
Again, Professor Sahin responds well.
“We didn’t have a lot of opportunity to celebrate,”
“I discussed with my wife what an extraordinary result this was, and we sat down and had a tea together and just recapped what had happened over the last month.”
The reference to drinking tea is the kind of little detail that journalists are really looking for from interviewees when they ask these questions. It offers a lovely picture and picture painting works well in all media interviews.
Sure enough, Andrew Marr picks up on this:
“Everyone in Britain is delighted that you had a cup of tea to celebrate.”
Cue big smile and laughter from the professor.
“This is not only British this is also Turkish,”
he points out.
We provide media training for lawyers, financial services firms and architects among others. During these sessions we drill down and encourage participants to think about these
“How did you feel?”
questions. It might be about getting a new client, seeing a building finally emerge from the ground, winning a case for someone or launching a new product after months or even years of hard work.
You don’t have to burst into tears but you just have to add some detail, a few little anecdotes and think about the words that you’re going to use to express how excited or surprised you were. Even in a serious business story the journalist will like this and will probably use it. It ticks the
box in what makes a story.
The other advantage of thinking about the
“how did you feel?”
element is that it helps to make your point. If this was a great achievement or a key moment in the development of your company – answering this question will prove it and drive it home the message in the minds of your audience.
Most importantly, it’s all part of the preparation and we make it clear during our media training courses that preparation is essential if you’re going to do a good media interview.
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